I still chuckle when I think about the tweet put out years ago by the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The likelihood that a person uses the word ‘toxin’ correlates strongly with how much Chemistry the person does *not* know” (punctuation his).
No doubt we will be pummeled by that word and its cousin “detox” over the next few weeks as the diet industry jumps on its big window of opportunity with resolution makers. Despite that, those who know chemistry agree that some foods and drinks are more protective than others. So apart from all the hype, is there anything true or helpful about the notion of detoxing?
I posed that question to Rebecca Katz, author and founder of the Healing Kitchens Institute. As a consultant, speaker, teacher and chef, Katz seeks to help medical professionals incorporate flavor and nutrition into their work. I asked her, by phone and email, for her insights on detoxing. Here are her responses, edited for space and clarity.
Have our bodies actually built up toxins during the weeks of end-of-year partying? Do we need to do something about it ASAP, as many marketers would have us believe?
A toxin is a substance that’s considered poisonous, so unless those extra cookies you’ve been eating are laced with arsenic, I don’t think you have to “detox.” Besides, our bodies are designed to detox 24/7. If they didn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to survive.
So we don’t need to do something drastic to correct for all the sugar and alcohol we consumed?
Going on a seven-day juice cleanse in the middle of the winter is not how your body is going to necessarily detox from feasting. In fact, you can engage in the occasional feast if you take care of yourself throughout the year. Cutting back on sugar and highly processed foods and adding ample vegetables to your plate year-round will enhance your body’s ability to do its own sustainable self-cleaning.
How do you think the word “detox” has been misused? Why is this a problem?
The word has been so overused in the marketing of products that it’s lost all of its meaning. As a result, people tend to either recoil or think they have to go on some severe, punishing cleanse. Marketers who peddle goods that promise to detox your body, especially in a limited amount of time, are usually fearmongering and playing on our vulnerabilities to sell products. The best products I know for enhancing our bodies’ ability to detox don’t have fancy packaging or labels. They are the fruits and vegetables hanging in the produce section.
You say a short-term “detox” cleanse is not how it works. How does detoxification actually work in our bodies?
The liver and kidneys do much of the heavy lifting of removing harmful substances from our bodies. The liver detoxes in two phases. I won’t go into the technical details, but the key is that the liver breaks down harmful compounds — everything from pesticides to alcohol — and converts them into water-soluble molecules so they can be flushed from your system. If the detox process is efficient — and if you are generally healthy and eat well, it will be — ordinary toxins roll merrily along through the body’s liquid waterways, exiting most often as either urine or bile.
How can we optimize our bodies’ natural detoxification systems?
There are plenty of nutrients that keep the liver and the rest of the body happy, including one that you may not expect: fiber. Some of the final products of detoxification are heavy metals that mostly come from the environment. If everything is working right, those heavy metals hitch a ride out of the body with dietary fiber. Another way we can optimize the body’s natural detox system is by staying well hydrated. Studies show that the more water, broths and herbal teas we drink, the better the kidneys flush numerous metabolic byproducts. Also, shifting your black-and-white food world to Technicolor by adding colorful plants rich in phytonutrients will go a long way to strengthening your immune system and vacuuming out unwanted compounds.
What are some of the top detoxifying foods, and why do these rank high on your list?
This is my shortlist of delectable foods that enhance our bodies’ natural detoxifying process. Think of them as your culinary pharmacy, open 24/7. Each is chockful of powerful antioxidants, phytochemicals, and antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that keep our metabolic and immune systems running smoothly: artichokes, avocados, asparagus, beets, cilantro, mint, parsley, all the cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli (and particularly broccoli sprouts), cauliflower, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, wasabi, horseradish, radishes, turnips, kale, cabbage, arugula, garlic, onions and lemons will all help our bodies haul out the liver’s metabolic trash, leaving our insides cleaned up.
As people think about their resolutions, how can they harness the real meaning of detoxification to help them reach their long-term health goals?
Falling in love with vegetables, herbs and spices — nature’s best cleaning crew — will help you to create sustainable nourishment, which will boost your body’s ability to rid itself of internal debris. In the kitchen, that might mean adding some freshly chopped herbs to your plate or a spritz of lemon in your tea, roasting some broccoli, or sautéing garlic and onions as the base of a soup or sauce. Every little shift counts. What we choose to put at the end of our forks can be empowering and the surest way toward achieving optimal health. We have this tendency after [feasting] to put ourselves on a long, nonstop guilt trip. We splurge and purge and beat ourselves up over it. I have a better idea: Find a way that works for you to relax and enjoy life throughout the year. It would be more productive and fun to look at all the nourishing foods we can incorporate into our lives with joy instead of dread.
Ellie Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author.